Defying Party Expectations

Today, I’m going to talk about the ‘holy tetrad’ of RPGs and why it can be helpful to break out of those expectations. Whether a tabletop RPG or a video game, almost everyone knows the classic party build – a tank (the warrior types), a healer (clerics and their ilk), and damage-dealers in the form of mages, warriors built to hit hard and often, and rogues knifing things in the back.

This setup is the classical adventuring party and it defines so many of the expectations we find in games, even the ones that try to deliberately subvert the tropes and cliches these define. Warriors either deal damage or try to hold enemies at bay, and GMs send the heavy enemies after them because they’re built to be a match for them. Healers don’t get into combat much, being busy casting beneficial spells and healing the rest of the group. Mages rain destruction from afar and hope they don’t draw the ire of whatever the tank-type warrior is dealing with. The other warriors engage any other foes to keep them away from the softer members of the party, and the rogues skip among them all, slicing and stabbing their foes on the way by.

The fact that these are the tropes of gaming means that games get built with them in mind; it shapes the idea of what can and can’t be done with a game, what kind of game balance exists, and in many ways strangles some of the more interesting possibilities. This can be accounted for by a clever GM and a willing party, but it can take effort to get past those tropes; trying to do so without everyone on board can cause problems as the party balance goes awry. It remains doable, just with more in the hands of the GM to manage.

The payoff, however, can be worth it; consider a rogue with a healing wand and potions of healing who serves as the party medic, using acrobatic skill and stealth to get in, heal their allies, and get out again without getting hit. Or consider a wizard who uses their magic to support them in a direct fight with the enemy, going toe-to-toe with the worst their foes have to offer. A warrior who remains lightly armored, fighting only with a bow or other ranged weapons – or who even tries to negotiate with foes before a fight and charm them over during any conflict, ending the fight swiftly and with minimal harm to anyone.

The tropes exist because they’re what the roles are made for; but stepping outside of those tropes and subverting them can bring a great deal of interest to the game table. How do you turn a fighter, whose skills all revolve around weaponry, into a replacement for the intelligent and skillful wizard or charming sorcerer? If you start with a rogue, can you get an effective pseudo-druid? Can a wizard double as a front-line combatant? The answer to all of them is yes, if the player wants to do so and the group is one board with the plan. Of course, the more players on board, the better.

If you’re a GM with such an offbeat player or two and the rest of the party wants to be a by-the-books party, you have your work cut out for you, as you’ll need to arrange encounters in a way that keep things interesting for the odd characters and challenging for the baseline ones. As long as you keep in mind that the players doing odd characters won’t be as streamlined and effective as ones built according to spec you should be fine. A melee-happy mage should face foes who aren’t built quite as tough until they get fairly regular touch attack spells and some protective spells and items, a healing rogue should have ample opportunity to show off their acrobatics and clever tricks, and so on. Just make sure some of the opponents are a proper challenge for the regular players.

It can lead to an exciting and unusual campaign, and may end up giving by-the-book players ideas for their own offbeat characters.

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Defying Party Expectations

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